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Decoding Learner Engagement – eLearning Business

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We have all heard the saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. The American educational psychologist Ernst Rothkopf modified this saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but the only water that gets into the horse’s stomach is what it drinks”. He wrote this back in 1969 in a paper on learning from learners. He coined a term called “mathemagenic” which combines two Greek words: “mathemain”, something that is learned, and “gineisthos” to give birth. He wanted to emphasize that learning is an active process in which a learner must be involved throughout. Therefore, organizations need to have an environment that fosters a culture of learning.

I had previously written that complex skills that are in demand today mean that learners need to be involved in the entire learning process. This means that simply consuming content or obtaining information is not helpful in the learning process.

Learner engagement is the result of several activities coming together. Some of them are:

  • Good learning design
  • Great content
  • Motivation to learn
  • A helpful learning culture within an organization

What is Learner Engagement?

In the book e-Learning, and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, authors Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer define engagement as a meaningful psychological interaction between a learner and a classroom environment that enables the achievement of a Learning objective. Engagement supports the development of a relationship between new content and prior knowledge and / or between content elements in the classroom.

They further subdivide learner engagement into 2 forms:

  1. Behavioral engagement
  2. Psychological engagement

In an eLearning course, behavioral engagement takes place when a learner clicks on an object within the course, even if it is just a matter of getting to the next part of the course. In a classroom, this can be noticed when a learner is taking notes or asking questions.

Psychological engagement is when a learner is mentally active such that a learning goal is achieved to some extent. A learner can be said to be psychologically engaged when performing a learning activity; This could be an eLearning course, or taking a course, or even reading a book and mentally organizing the material into a cohesive structure to make sense of it. Psychological engagement may or may not be accompanied by behavioral engagement.

In their paper “Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning,” Professors Logan Fiorella and Richard Mayer say that learning is a generative activity. By this they mean that learning is a process in which incoming information (from learning materials) in the form of words and pictures is converted into usable knowledge that a learner can use later. This also means that generative learning depends not only on how information is presented to learners (ie teaching material), but also on how learners try to understand that material (ie learning strategies).

How do we get learner engagement?

Learner engagement focuses on how we can foster an environment in which generative learning takes place. As we are referring to adult learners, it is important to remember that generative perceptions and meanings are a combination of the connections a learner makes with the “material to be learned” and the existing knowledge that a learner already has.

If all of this is not complicated enough to ensure learner engagement, we also need to consider learner motivation and attention. Motivation makes a learner willing enough to invest the time and effort to plow through and understand the material. Attention is when a learner directs the generative processes to incoming learning material and combines this with previous knowledge.

Motivation can be influenced by several factors:

  • Interest of the learner
  • goals
  • Beliefs
  • Attribution about one’s own learning

Meaningful learning can take place when a learner is motivated enough to get involved in the process, understand the subject matter and integrate it into their existing knowledge. A learner who has a false belief in their ability to learn can be easily demotivated at the first sign of challenge or difficulty. A demotivated learner will find it difficult to use the mental resources required to understand the material and learning will be hindered. It is therefore important that the learner’s motivation is taken into account during the learning process. Among many ways to motivate learners, one is to show them how learning helps them: the WIIFM part.

While motivation can come extrinsically in the form of a reward or avoidance of punishment, best results are achieved when a learner is intrinsically motivated. Achieving this is easier said than done; it is a difficult but not an impossible task.

Why is it important to decipher learner engagement?

Returning to our starting point, Rothkopf’s term “Mathemagenics” or activities that generate learning, we can see that it is as if the learners have almost complete power over their own learning. When engaging in a learning activity and focusing on facts, they will likely remember the facts contained in a lesson. Hopefully, if you focus on how you are going to use the information, you will learn to use it. If you choose not to do anything with the information, you will not learn anything. The bottom line is that while everything can be done to provide the best possible training material to a learner, the only learning that will ever take place is what a learner learns. It is the learner who has to decide how to process the information contained in the learning material. What is learned is what a learner “drinks”.

A learning environment that encourages the learning of complex skills

This does not release L&D or training departments from any responsibility. You must do everything possible to create an environment in which learning can take place so that learners can be motivated to learn as much as possible. They must also do everything in their power to remove barriers that can prevent or make it difficult for a learner to learn.

L&D practitioners have to come to terms with the fact that learning doesn’t end with a course or when a course ends. The more memorable a learning experience is for a learner, the greater the chances a learner will get involved. This requires L&D practitioners to have advanced skills in planning, production, development, design of courses and face-to-face events. You also need to have an understanding of modern learners and the latest learning trends.

All of this may sound intimidating, but one way to reduce the pressure on an L&D department is to work with a learning partner who understands these complexities. This partner would need to provide an environment that allows the learner to engage in multiple ways. One that would not only arouse their curiosity, but keep them interested so that they persist in their learning efforts. Learning needs to be delivered in multiple formats: eLearning, classroom, books, practice settings, etc. so that learners can become knowledgeable and make meaningful contributions to their organizations.

What Ernst Rothkopf said was correct: “You can lead a horse to water, but only the water that it drinks gets into the horse’s stomach.” We need to create an environment where learners can keep coming back to drinking.


  • How learning happens. Groundbreaking work in educational psychology and what it means in practice, Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick, Routledge (2020)
  • Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning, Logan Fiorella and Richard E. Mayer (2015)
  • E-Learning and the Science of Education: Best Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, Ruth Colvin and Richard E. Mayer, John Wiley & Sons (2016)

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